We have a big challenge at Grassroots Leadership. There is a lot of work to be done, and fighting a billion dollar for-profit prison industry is not easy work. But there is also much to be thankful for. The hard work of Grassroots Leadership staff, volunteers, and allies is really helping change the world to make it more just. Here are a few of the things that we at Grassroots Leadership are thankful for this year.
1. Organizing Wins #ImmigrationAction, & Those Who Continue to Push for #Not1More Deportation!
President Obama announced last week that he would take executive action on immigration that could shield up to 4 to 5 million immigrants from deportation. In addition, he ended the so-called Secure Communities program, which has been at the heart of his administration’s mass deportation dragnet. This move comes after years of organizing to stop deportations, end S-Comm from the ground up by convincing local governments to opt-out, and to convince the president to take this very action. It’s a necessary step that will make a huge difference in the lives of many. However, it leaves much to be desired and sets up new challenges. For one, it leaves out many groups and keeps millions under the threat of deportation. The groups left out or thrown under the bus include the parents of DREAMers, seasonal workers, LGBT immigrants and youth, domestic violence victims, black immigrants, people with felonies, people convicted of low-level crimes, mothers and children in family detention camps, immigrants in detention who are subject to the 34,000 quota, and border communities. Additionally, it replaces S-Comm with PEP-Comm (the “Priority Enforcement Program”), which so far sounds no different from S-Comm. The worst of it was the unveiling of a new narrative frame: “Felons, not Families.” We are so thankful though for those who stood up to this divisive statement immediately to say that for millions of people living in the world’s most incarcerated nation, felons are families.
2. The Closure of the Dawson State Jail & the Push to Close More Prisons in Texas!
For decades Grassroots Leadership has monitored the private prison industry and the carceral facilities that are run by these for-profit corporations. Around the country we have documented cases of abuse, neglect, understaffing, and other scandals at privately operated prisons and jails. In 2012 we learned of several ostensibly preventable deaths at the Dawson State Jail, a CCA-run prison in Dallas where people were serving short sentences for non-violent crimes, including that of a newborn who was born to her incarcerated mother without medical care in a solitary cell. In 2013 we mobilized Texans at the state legislature to call for the closing of Dawson as well as the Mineral Wells Pre-Parole Transfer Facility and WON. We successfully closed these prisons, setting a national precedent for prison closures in a state that boasts one of the highest rates of incarceration in the nation. Building on this momentum we are working with our statewide partners to build continued support for the closure of Texas prisons, shining a spotlight on those that are privately operated first, where we continue to see rampant violence, misconduct, and abuse. In partnership we are developing short and long-term plans to take more prisons offline and to create the conditions needed to drive down Texas' high rate of incarceration with reforms in sentencing, parole and in the criminal justice budget process.
3. The Movement to End Immigrant Family Detention
An extreme response to the increasing number of families fleeing from Central America and arriving at the border, the ICE training facility in Artesia, New Mexico was quickly cobbled together as a makeshift family detention center. Though it is located hundreds of miles from populated cities, Artesia quickly became the epicenter of the fight to end family detention, with advocacy groups, community organizers, and pro bono lawyers descending on the town to make sure the women and children detained inside were not denied basic human rights.
This month marks the closing of the Artesia facility, for which we are thankful. While the Obama administration continues to expand family detention with the opening of the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, TX and by expanding the Karnes County family detention center, the momentum of the movement to end family detention, again, began in Artesia and has since spread nationwide. Though we are deeply saddened by the choice to once again detain families, we are thankful for the knowledge that the movement isn’t starting from the beginning. We beat family detention the first time, and we’ll do it again.
4. Momentum builds for Locked Up and #ShippedAway Campaign!
The Locked Up and #ShippedAway Campaign is in full force in Vermont! Grassroots Leadership is proud to be partnering with Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform (VCJR), who are leading the fight, cultivating grassroots power to bring their prisoners home. More than thirty Vermont organizations across the state have signed on to support these efforts and hundreds of Vermont residents have signed the petition, which continues to gain more supporters everyday. Vermonters incarcerated out-of-state and impacted families are writing letters and sharing their stories, which will be elevated in a new report set to be released the first week of December.
5. The End of Immigration Detention at the Jack Harwell Detention Center in Waco, Texas!
This year, we joined the nationwide call to #EndTheQuota. The 34,000 minimum of people who are in immigrant detention every day is thanks to Congressional appropriators who set the quota. The greatest beneficiaries of this are the private prisons corporations who also happen to lobby hard for the quota. Texans United for Families took action to target a detention center in Waco that exemplified what can happen when you have an immigrant lock-up quota. The Jack Harwell detention center had come under fire after attorneys reported substandard conditions for their clients there. Their letter to ICE officials outlining how the facility violated the agency’s own standards went unanswered. That’s when TUFF organized a bold action targeting the center, demanding it be closed and that Congress end the quota. People coming from Austin, Dallas, Taylor, and Waco protested at the local farmer’s market before caravaning to the center. There, we delivered know-your-rights manuals in Spanish for the men inside over the protests of the warden who said we couldn’t park in his lot. The action inspired those in Waco to begin visiting the detention center and plans for taking an ICE-directive tour began. But when they requested a tour date, a curt email from ICE officials confirmed the action had been a success. "We are currently not utilizing the Jack Harwell facility,” said Norma Lacy. We are thankful that local action resulted in officials putting this sub-standard facility on “ice.”
6. No new private civil commitment facility in Texas!
Recently, Texas’ Office of Violent Sex Offender Management (OVSOM) has undergone a number of tumultuous changes that ranged from investigations, problems with contracts, and the resignation of their Executive Director. In addition, Avalon, the private prison company presently operating a number of the facilities in the state, threatened to release individuals in their custody into the community unless they received a significant increase in pay. Following this, the OVSOM released an RFP to locate a new entity to operate the multiple civil commitment facilities in the state. Currently, this RFP has been cancelled. Alongside internal upheaval, the Bill Clayton Detention Center also attempted to negotiate a new contract with Correct Care Solutions, the rebranded version of GEO Care and former subsidiary of GEO Group, to hold civilly committed individuals in a secure lock-up facility. Moving forward with this contract would mean implementing a lock-down facility at odds with Texas’ present outpatient and halfway house civil commitment model. The OVSOM chose not to move forward with this contract as well. While there still is much progress to be made in this area of criminal justice work, we can still take note of minor steps forward as we continue to monitor any impending changes.
7. Visitors to Immigrants in Detention!
Being locked up for the holidays far from family and loved ones can be devastating. This holiday season, we are thankful for all of the community members across Texas and the country who go inside detention centers and prisons to visit those detained. For almost five years, a group of dedicated volunteers has met out of our Austin office to visit immigrant women who are detained at the T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, Texas. Hutto visitors serve as human rights observers of the facility’s conditions, help break the isolation of detention for women in Hutto, and create new advocates for detention reform. This year, new visitation programs have spread around Texas and around the country. We're thankful for all the volunteers who take the time to visit people in detention.
8. Grassroots Leadership is Growing!
Grassroots Leadership is thankful for the growth of our staff and program areas this year! In September, we welcomed Emma Randles, a Young Adult Volunteer from the Presbyterian Church who is working with our immigration team. Emma is originally from Claremont, California and graduated from Gettysburg College in 2013 where she studied psychology and Spanish.
In September, Eshe Cole joined our Austin office as our new mental health and criminal justice program coordinator. Eshe joined us after working as a Program Coordinator for the City of Austin helping to develop a pilot program addressing maternal health disparities for African-American women in Austin/Travis County. She also spent the several years working with Mamas of Color Rising, a local group of women who organize around social justice issues pertaining to poor and working class mothers of color. Eshe holds a PhD in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Texas. Stay tuned for more exciting news about the growth of our staff and board this year!
9. Grassroots Leadership Sustainers Helping Ensure our Work Continues!
Back in April, we invited our supporters to join the Grassroots Leadership Sustainer Program to help ensure that our work to fight the for-profit prison and immigrant detention industry continues year-round. The Grassroots Leadership Sustainer Program is based on the idea that we are all rooted in struggle together and that when we combine our collective resources, we can achieve more. Our sustainers give a monthly recurring donation that is sustainable for them, and help Grassroots Leadership's work grow and deepen. We've set an ambitious goal of 100 Sustainers by the end of the year, and more than 70 of you have already signed up. Help us reach our goal by signing up here.